Communicate your environmental achievements in the New Year

January 6, 2010

Everywhere you look these days, you can see shades of green. What was once a small movement is rapidly becoming part of everyday life.

For example, consumers are looking for greener products.  A recent Shelton Group survey found that 60 percent of American consumers are seeking out green products, and 66 percent said that they didn’t curtail their green spending when the economy slumped.

The growth of green has significant implications on how we do business and presents new challenges for communicators. Though more companies seem to understand the need to communicate their sustainability efforts, most could improve their efforts.

At times, this challenge seems to be magnified by the changing media landscape. The number of media channels is multiplying — especially niche outlets that focus mostly on the environment.  With an increasing number of Web sites, blogs, forums and social media platforms, how does a communicator start to provide the information that they’re looking for while avoiding the dreaded “greenwash” label?

I asked the following question to eight prominent green bloggers:

“In a world that is paying more attention to the environmental footprint of the products they buy and the companies that they do business with, what advice would you give to PR professionals who are seeking to communicate their company’s progress toward sustainability?”

Here are their answers:

“Don’t play the numbers game with green bloggers — blasting out press releases just doesn’t work very well in this space. Find a few you’d really like to connect with, and then do just that: try to build a relationship. Offer opportunities to talk with clients and have your client prepare for a genuine conversation, rather than a presentation of a scripted message. Of course, none of this will work if there’s not a genuinely green benefit to your product or service.  Avoid the sins of greenwashing — be prepared to be accused of it anyway — but also know that some bloggers in this space are more than willing to hear you out if there’s a legitimate environmental benefit to your offering.”
Jeff McIntire-Strasburg, founder and editor of Sustainablog

“I tend to advise companies not to communicate their environmental and ethical achievements — at least not as a form of marketing or corporate reputation building.  The [companies that are] being green usually have other marketing priorities — like convincing people to buy something innovative, different or convincing people that despite its lack of toxic chemicals it does actually get your clothes clean. For anyone else, it is greenwash.  And the money is better spent educating your audience, finding ways to cooperate in getting the best overall result — for most products, 75 percent of the impact is how, when and how often the product is used. But my going-in position is to be suspicious of wanting to ‘market’ your sustainability.”
John Grant, author of  “The Green Marketing Manifesto,” blogs at Greenormal

“Communicating sustainability has to be built on a foundation of four things: transparency (don’t be afraid to take on scary issues — pretending they don’t exist isn’t a solution), data (back up what you are saying with facts and figures that are independently vetted), specificity (don’t speak in often meaningless ‘green’ generalities) and simplify (frame your story in terms that people understand).  Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation said something recently that is a good credo when it comes to sustainability:  ‘The leaders will be companies willing to talk about the things their competitors are afraid to talk about.’”
— William Brent, senior vice president at Weber Shandwick, blogs at The Search for Cleantech

“PR people pitching ‘green’ stories face a challenge.  The supply of such stories is rapidly increasing.  The demand in the conventional media is fixed or decreasing as newspapers get smaller, reporters get laid off, etc. So it’s no wonder that green bloggers like me are flooded with pitches.  To get my attention, please, please, please think about the audience. Not about your client. Think about the typical Internet surfer who has a few moments to decide whether to click on a headline, follow a link on Facebook or Twitter, or actually read a story.  What’s the headline? (Literally, what’s the headline? If PR people write a great headline with their pitch, that’ll make it easier for me to write one, or even steal the one you wrote.) Where’s the excitement? Where’s the surprise? Can you introduce me to a new idea? An interesting or colorful character? A story with drama, controversy, conflict? ‘XYZ Widgets Releases New Sustainability Report’ won’t do it. Sorry. I’m looking for stories and blog posts that will not only attract readers but leave them feeling that they learned something new, different or provocative, maybe even something they would pass along to a colleague or friend.  A ‘Hey, Mabel, you gotta read this’ kind of story is the way an old newspaper editor of mine would put it. I know that’s a tough hurdle to clear, but so be it.”
— Marc Gunther, contributing editor at Fortune, blogs at Marc Gunther

“It’s a truism, but you have to craft your pitch to the journalist and his or her publication — know what type of pitch is appropriate or will at least grab a particular publication’s attention. I remain amazed at the number of pitches I receive that are obviously an e-mail blast and thus off the mark and end up instantly deleted. But, in general, it’s safe to say that pitches about a company reducing its carbon footprint, launching a green product or service, etc., will elicit a yawn these days unless there’s a compelling angle or personality involved. Be prepared to make executives with direct responsibility for the development at hand available and to provide verification of the claims being made. And if your pitch is rejected, find out why and what it takes to get the attention of the journalists you’re targeting.”
— Todd Woody, contributing editor at Fortune, blogs at Green Wombat

“Be honest. We’re a long way from the day that a corporation’s draw on natural resources is fully sustainable. The fact that companies are legitimately trying to lighten their load on the earth is laudable, but keep it real. Greenwashing creates more problems than it purports to solve. So tell us the progress, but tell us the trade-offs, too. The cliché about this being a journey, not a destination, is true here.”
— Martin LaMonica, senior writer at CNET News and CBS Interactive, blogs at Green Tech

“Communicating about green — not just about making claims, or even stating facts — is about providing context. If I were to tell you ‘I jogged five miles yesterday,’ you might say that wasn’t shabby. But that fact would likely beg more questions:  Was this the first time? Are you working up to 10 miles? A marathon? Is this part of a larger goal to get in shape? If so, are you also watching your diet, smoking, drinking and other lifestyle behaviors? Without understanding those questions, knowing about my five-mile run isn’t very helpful. It may be a heroic feat by a recent heart transplant recipient, or a lazy romp by a marathoner. Too many PR folks spew facts without context, leaving their audience with more questions than answers and setting themselves up for charges of greenwash, or worse.”
—  Joel Makower, author of “Strategies for the Green Economy,” co-founder and executive editor of Greener World Media, Inc., blogs at Two Steps Forward

“PR professionals should focus on the No. 1 concern of green consumers, and that is transparency. Consumers are buying green because they are concerned about the environment, and in particular, their health. They are seeking as much information as possible to understand the environmental and health impacts of the products they buy.”
— Jacquelyn Ottman, author of “Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation,” blogs at Green Marketing

Nathan Schock
Nathan Schock is the director of public relations for POET and a blogger at www.greenwaycommunique.com. You can find more information about him at www.nathanschock.com.


KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz says:

thanks for sharing your post, Nathan! All great advice from my colleagues and friends above. As Martin says, keep it real. I like to wrap my response to this question with a reminder of on of the back to basic rules from marketing 101: Green is a feature, not a benefit. Pitch the benefit.

Jan. 27, 2010

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